Monday, 9 January 2017

Emma's Review: The Secret Lives of the Amir Sisters by Nadiya Hussain

Reviewed by Emma Crowley

The four Amir sisters – Fatima, Farah, Bubblee and Mae – are the only young Muslims in the quaint English village of Wyvernage.

On the outside, despite not quite fitting in with their neighbours, the Amirs are happy. But on the inside, each sister is secretly struggling.

Fatima is trying to find out who she really is – and after fifteen attempts, finally pass her driving test. Farah is happy being a wife but longs to be a mother. Bubblee is determined to be an artist in London, away from family tradition, and Mae is coping with burgeoning Youtube stardom.

Yet when family tragedy strikes, it brings the Amir sisters closer together and forces them to learn more about life, love, faith and each other than they ever thought possible.

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Nadiya Hussain was the popular winner of The Great British Bake Off two years ago and endeared herself to the nation. She has written some cookbooks and even made her own documentary charting her journey back to India which proved to make for very enjoyable viewing. Now she is turning her hand to fiction with Ayisha Malik whom it was nice to see get a mention within the introductory pages. I think there is nothing worse than 'celebs' writing books and passing them off as their own when there has been little input at all. Here though I didn't get the sense that everything was left to Ayisha rather that Nadiya knew the story she wanted to tell and how the characters and storylines should develop.

The Secret Lives of the Amir Sisters follows a dysfunctional but lovable family exploring faith and identity and how keeping secrets is not in any way good at all as slowly things start to bubble to the surface. In fact the Amir family are the only Muslim family in their small village of Wyvernage. I had never read a book before featuring an Indian family living in the UK. I had read plenty of books set in India that fall into the historical fiction genre but this was a new kind of read for me and despite there being a few lulls in places overall I really enjoyed this book. I hadn't been expecting that much from it but one couldn't fail to get caught up in the lives of the four sisters – Fatima, Farrah, Bublee and Mae. The story is told through the viewpoints of each sister in alternating chapters. I think this was the best way to tell this story as it didn't become one dimensional and we got to see the same situation from many sides as things began to develop.

Fatima or Fatti as she is nicknamed by her sisters (which truthfully was infuriating for me) is the eldest sister. She hates leaving her room, she is not a happy person and stuffs her face with prawns and tubes of Primula cheese at every opportunity yet this has to be done in secret for the most part. Fatima is piling on the weight and faces a daily battle in her heart and mind. She knows things need to change and things can't go on the way they are. She should be married with a family of her own particularly as she is the eldest daughter. There is a running joke within the family that she fails her driving test all the time and several family members seem to put her down. Fatti has an overwhelming sense of not belonging, that she is on the outskirts of everything and merely looking in. Then Fatima discovers something that may well change everything both on a personal and family level. Is she willing to accept what she has discovered or will she carry on the way she has been? I felt desperately sorry for Fatima at all points throughout the story. Many of us can understand her struggle with weight although not to the extent we have tubes of Primula cheese on stand by. I felt her family just took Fatima for granted, they viewed it as being laughable her weight gain and how she relied on food. Her mother appeared to be the typical Indian mammy wanting to feed her up and smooth over the existing issues without really dealing with them. It was clear they needed to be more open. Yet at the same time when we get inside Fatima's head when she is on her own I found her to be raw, honest and open about how she was feeling I only wished she could be the same person when with her family and vocalise what was running through her head.

Mae is the youngest member of the family and perhaps my favourite. She was sharp, witty and said things like she saw it with no filter which at times got her into trouble. She is very health conscious, which is in direct contrast to Fatima, and she did inflict her views regarding health a bit too much on other people. She documents the family's life on social media and always has her phone in her hand uploading the latest news or titbits of info. I felt Mae was often forgotten or taken for granted. She was always there at every pivotal point in the story and observed things quietly things that others didn't pick up on at all. Mae was funny and never held back in anyway even if she didn't say things to her family it certainly was recorded on social media for all to see. Again despite being underestimated by many she was a great character who was clever and easy to like and played an important role within the story.

Bublee is 28 and an artist who specialises in sculpture, she was the one who wanted to be different from all the other family members. She moved away to London which was a wrench considering she would be away from her twin Farah. The relationship between herself and Farah has broken down since Farah married her first cousin Mo. I didn't like Bubblee at all I felt she was just very selfish and stuck in her opinions and there was no way of changing them. OK she was a twin and didn't like the direction Farah had chosen, or the choices she had made, but I felt like saying get over it she is your sister and we have to appreciate and respect our siblings choices although we may not always agree with it. When push came to show though Bubblee did step up and slowly began to loosen and warm up a bit but I never did really warm to her character. I suppose you can't really like every person you read about it in a book, there has to be that someone who just does something or comes across in a certain way that makes you hold back that little bit in fully embracing their character.

The final sister is Bubblee's twin Farah who married her first cousin Mo. To me she was the backbone of the family and so selfless, always putting others needs before her own. She did everything for everybody without question and without reward or compliment and was taken for granted in my opinion. I saw a little bit of myself in her. Her parents didn't see all she did for them and what secrets she was hiding in particular with golden child their son 'Jay'. He made brief appearances in the book over halfway through and up until that point he was always referred to in awe and reverence .He was like the prodigal son and he could do no wrong in his parents eyes. In fact all this praise and fawning over Jay was very annoying and so wrong considering the wonderful children the Amir parents also had. I suppose it is often the way in families, one child gets all the credit or praise without actually doing anything and it's those who are silent and the backbone and do things without question that get overlooked. Farah like her sisters had her own secrets and problems to hide and it's only when a specific incident occurs that the family are forced to reassess everything. They begin to sit up and take notice as things come to light and the perfect façade of this wonderful Bangladeshi family begins to shatter. The only question is, with everything spilling forth, can the family go back to the unit they claim to be or will things irrevocably change for the better or for the worse?

The Secret Lives of the Amir Sisters was a nice, enjoyable read and proved to provide much more of a story than I had expected. It gave the reader a good insight into a family at a turning point in their lives. I thought I would get all muddled with the sisters and chapters from different viewpoints but I didn't and I felt the story flowed well for the most part. There were one or two points where I was truly surprised with the revelations coming to the forefront and there had been brief allusions but I was glad I hadn't worked them out until the point of reveal. The book was good given it was a 'celeb' writing it and I do hope Nadiya will write more books in the future. This wasn't 100% perfect by any means but I do think it is well worth a read particularly if you want to mix up genres after having read say a number of serious books or light hearted romance as this offered a nice balance between the two. This book mightn’t feature in my top reads come the end of 2017 but it has highlighted that the author has great potential and I'll be keen to see what she may write in the future.

Many thanks to Mary Byrne from Harper Collins Ireland for sending me a copy of The Secret Lives of the Amir Sisters to review and to Sharon for having my review on the blog.

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